This poem/song is meant to sooth all girls who have been hurt by a man’s cheating. It is quite a cheerful little tune blaming men’s nature for their indiscretions and encouraging girls to avoid depression and not get hung up on these cheaters, but carry on with their lives in a positive and happy frame of mind.
Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea, and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into ‘hey nonny, nonny’.
Sing no more ditties, sing no more,
Of dumps so dull and heavy;
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leavy.
Then sigh not so,
But let them go
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into ‘hey nonny, nonny’.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
If you didn’t know, Shakespeare was a fairly competent playwright in Elizabethan England, so much so that even today a few of his plays are still studied from time to time… I know you’re not an idiot really, so I’ll skip to the specific background to this poem/song.
This poem/song appears in Much Ado About Nothing (Act II Scene III) which is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s best comedies. The story revolves around two sets of lovers and their ups and downs as others trick them into believing their other half has been unfaithful. It is performed by Balthasar, a relatively minor character, the court singer, who is addressing the main manipulators.
The message about male trickery and deceitfulness seems to address the false rumours that have made Claudio think his true love Hero has been unfaithful and ditch her at the altar. Don’t worry though, they end up happily ever after at the end!
The main thing here is love and the different approaches to it by men and women; depending on how you choose to read this you could take it to be deeply misogynistic (negative towards women) or pretty offensive towards men… or just as a harmless song of soothing.
You could also argue their is a reflection on the way people should live their lives. Carpe diem – seize the day, would sum up what the singer is trying to tell the women the song is intended for.
At first this might look like a largish poem, but notice that there is a chorus that takes up half of each stanza.
Both stanzas follow a similar pattern. The opening lines aim to console miserable ladies and to put the blame of their misery firmly on the shoulders of men. However, as mentioned above, we can view this from two different perspectives.
Women are being asked to avoid moping around in misery because of men, but surely they have every right to be upset if their partners have been unfaithful to them? Is this poem just a way of justifying some pretty terrible behaviour from men by saying that it is a natural instinct and something that has happened forever?
Alternatively can we view this as being pretty offensive to men. All men are unfaithful and unable to commit to a monogamous relationship? Really? All men throughout history are fraudsters?
We could also view the poem as being pretty neutral and not meaning to cause such indignation. If this is meant to sooth a depressed lady then this is just a way of placing blame on another party’s shoulder.
Okay, back to the specific of stanza one. After pleading with the ladies to stop sighing miserably, the song casts all men as having a deceiving nature, compares them to sailors having partners all over the place and then says they can’t commit to one woman.
Stanza two pleads with the ladies to stop singing melancholy tunes lamenting their loss, before again slagging all men off as being fraudsters since the birth of humanity.
The chorus encourages women to move on and not wallow for want of one man. There is a suggestion that they should hide their misery and try to appear positive and happy, and we’ll explore the reasons for this in the next section.
Language and techniques
I’m going to start with the chorus here, not for any particular reason other than it struck me first as being more interesting.
The singer is telling the ladies to be ‘blithe and bonny’, which is archaic language with a rough modern day translation as cheer up and smile. However, he is not telling them off for feeling as they do, but wants them to hide their ‘sounds of woe’ with a pleasant and merry demeanour. As mentioned above, we could read something sinister into this, but I think this is an acknowledgement that they are entitled to feel miserable, but also that by acting this way they will only pull themselves into a spiral of misery that will be never ending. If you brood on something it always seems worse than it is and misery is said to breed misery.
‘Hey nonny, nonny’ may sound interesting, but is really only an imitation of a cheerful song he is requesting the ladies to take up to replace their misery. However, telling ladies to ‘let them go’ is quite interesting (maybe just to me) as the implication is that women are prone to mope around after a lover even though they have done the unthinkable rather than moving on with their lives. Good advice from the poem and advice that I wish my childhood sweetheart would have taken when we moved away for university!
The opening stanza starts with the repetition of ‘sigh no more’ which emphasises the futility of being a melancholy lover. This line positions women as innocent victims in love being manipulated by, in the following line, men who ‘were deceivers ever’, so never to be trusted. This is a universal statement that tars all men with the same brush, as liars, tricksters and cheaters. However, this line also excuses men as it is no longer an individual’s fault, but it is the curse of their gender.
Next we move on to a metaphor that links the behaviour of all men to sailors. ‘One foot in sea, and one on shore’ could be compared with the common belief that sailors used to have a different girl in every port, but the phrases also means that men cannot commit to one way of life or another as the following line clarifies; ‘To one thing constant never’ links back to this idea of changeability in male lives, but also reflects directly upon their relationship with women and suggest that they are not prepared to commit to one woman forever.
In the second stanza, the opening changes slightly, but has the same meaning. Stop with your miserable songs, it’s not going to change anything is an approximate translation, perhaps with a bit less sympathy. Again this leads on to a castigation of men as the ‘fraud of men was ever so’, a phrase that again both criticises and excuses male actions as it makes cheating part of the male anatomy.
This is probably one of the easier poems to sound convincing about when discussing the use of structure.
Each stanza is a four line verse followed by a six line chorus. The verses are pretty sombre affairs trying to sooth the wounds to ladies’ hearts and this can be seen with the use of caesuras in both opening lines (and on the third line of stanza one) throughout the verses that slow the pace down to a soothing, conciliatory speed.
In contrast, the choruses end with enjambment as we speed joyfully into a bout of ‘hey nonny, nonny’. Notice that the second stanza’s chorus is subtly different as the ‘let them go’ doesn’t include a comma here so their is enjambment here, maybe suggesting that the poet’s instruction for the ladies to be more merry is being taken and he feels more confident in his jolliness.
Imagine you were trying to cheer your best friend up; you need to sound a bit sympathetic so they know you’re not just fed up with them (as the friend in Why So Pale and Wan, Fond Lover? clearly is), but then you need to slag their partner off and talks to them about going out for a party to get over them. Well, this poem is basically the same: sympathetic, but only for a little bit and then quite merry and positive.
Just a quick one to say that a booklet with all the poems from the new GCSE selection (Songs of Ourselves – Volume 1, Part 5) is now available on the holding page.
This means I am underway and you can expect my first analysis shortly!
Dear loyal readers,
Just a quick post to let you know that I am alive and active. Currently I am compiling the poems for both the next GCSE section and A2 and I will soon make them available on the site.
After that I am planning on tackling them in turn, one GCSE poem and one A2 poem. This means it will probably take me a year or more to get it all done, but that is the reality of my new grown up life!
I’m also investigating eBook writing software and should hopefully (finally) get around to making my notes available to download in a neat and handy form (for a small fee).
Watch this space!
Keats explores the idea of melancholy and bids the reader not to turn to poison to end our heartache, but instead to rejoice that this kind of suffering is only possible as a reflection of the beauty or pleasure we have been able to see or achieve in the world.
He presents the extremes of emotions as being intrinsically linked and thus as something we should celebrate and strive for. Think of this poem as a convoluted way of saying that it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.
Lethe – the Greek spirit of forgetfulness and oblivion and one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld;
wolf’s-bane – a poisonous plant;
Proserpine – the Roman goddess of grain and agriculture (usually further associated with the cycle of life and death and fertility), who also reigns as the Queen of the Underworld;
rosary – a chain used in Roman Catholic worship;
Psyche – a beautiful princess from Greek mythology who loses her love, Cupid, and endures punishments and trials from the jealous goddess of Love and Beauty, Venus;
glut – an excessive amount of something;
peonies – a pretty pink flower;
sovran – an Italian version of sovereign that is also used in English.
No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Make not your rosary of yew-berries,
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
Or if thy mistress some rich anger shows,
Emprison her soft hand, and let her rave,
And feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes.
She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine;
His soul shalt taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
John Keats (1795-1821)
John Keats is another poet often considered a contender for the title of greatest of all time and this poem is a powerful weapon for anyone who wished to argue so.
Although born to a relatively comfortable existence, Keats lost his father at the age of 8 and his mother six years later and for the rest of his childhood lived with his grandmother and three younger siblings. His adult life should have been relatively comfortable as he’d been left a fair bit of cash by his grandfather and mother, but the family lawyer conveniently neglected to tell him and money was always a bit of an issue in his brief adult life.
Initially he trained as a doctor and it wasn’t until 1816 that he had any literary work published. However, his work wasn’t well received in his lifetime. Only after his death did appreciation grow and he is particularly revered now for his series of 5 odes (including ours) that were all composed in the same year.
It was written in 1819 when 24, only two years before his premature death after suffering from tuberculosis. This wasn’t a fantastic time for Keats as he was dealing with the recent loss of a brother and was frustrated in his affections for Fanny Brawne as his poor financial situation meant that he wasn’t much of a marriage prospect. However, the message of our poem seems to suggest that he was intent on seeing a silver lining to his struggles.
This poem is in a section entitled ‘Birds, Beast and Weather’. He reflects on how nature’s beauty can act as a cure for all of life’s woes. By extension he is exploring an idea similar to Yin and Yang or the rough with the smooth as a feature of human emotion and experience.
He shows how misery and depression are not a cause for grief and ending it all, but as almighty lows that find a reflection in some almighty highs that life is capable of supplying.
I am going to rattle through this relatively quickly and will expand upon ideas in the following section.
In the opening stanza, Keats begins by trying to convince us not to address our melancholy or misery by trying to block it from our minds or else ending our lives. He references the river of oblivion and forgetfulness, poison the underworld and various other symbols of death all as things we should avoid. He ends the stanza by explaining that death is too immediate and we should embrace our suffering.
He hasn’t really justified this as yet and in the second stanza merely expands upon what he would rather we do when melancholy. He suggests that we combat this by immersing ourselves in everything that makes the world beautiful.
In the third stanza he presents an idea that melancholy only exists as an extension of beauty and all the good things in the world. We can only feel so miserable because of our appreciation of how fantastic and beautiful the world can be. Beauty and sorrow are inextricably linked and each works to enhance the other: the transience and certain death or decay of beauty enhances our appreciation of it; while our misery is made all the more acute because it is an expression of our feeling of lost beauty.
Language and techniques
I wholeheartedly recommend you read through both the SparkNotes and Shmoop pages about this poem as they are much more thorough and methodical than I am and helped me a great deal when writing this post.
The poem is written as an imperative as Keats direct us to not shy away from experiencing melancholy or depression. This forceful stance, enhanced by the immediate repetition of ‘No, no’ that opens the stanza, presumably comes from lessons that Keats feels he has learnt through his own experience and he is trying to guide us to appreciate the full range of human experience.
The opening stanza is rich with various symbols relating to death: ‘Lethe’ is a river from the underworld in Greek mythology and therefore associated with death as well as forgetfulness; ‘Wolf’s-bane’ sap and ‘nightshade’ can be used to relieve pain or in larger doses as a deadly poison; ‘the beetle… the death-moth… [and] the downy-owl’ are all animals associated with death or funeral rituals. Keats bids us not to try to escape our suffering with the finality of death, however, he also wants us to embrace our pain in full.
The river and the plants also have connotations of pain relief or forgetting our troubles and Keats clearly means for us to avoid this approach to misery. He further bids us not seek solace in our ‘rosary’, which are a symbol of Catholic faith and prayer. These are all approaches that could help people handle or ‘drown’ their grief, but Keats instead wants us to experience the ‘wakeful anguish of the soul’.
This idea seems counter intuitive, with the association between melancholy and ‘anguish’ really demonstrating that misery is an intense pain to endure. This is further enhanced with natural imagery when melancholy is termed a ‘weeping cloud’ as if it hangs upon us and is inescapable. Keats uses pathetic fallacy to compare our feelings with a rainy day as not only are we consumed by the cloud, but the ‘droop-headed flowers’ (hanging with the heavy rain drops rather than looking up into the Sun) reflect a similar posture we assume when miserable as if we want to hide our heads from the world.
However, we are instructed to embrace it ‘when the melancholy fit shall fall’. This line suggests that these feelings are inevitable and it is a case of when and not if. Instead of fleeing or forgetting our misery, we are told to ‘glut [our] sorrow on a morning rose’; ‘the rainbow of the salt sand-wave’; or ‘globed peonies’. These natural images reflect elements of the natural world most commonly associated with beauty. The sweet scent of the rose, the glory of a rainbow and the pretty simplistic of a peony are presented as cures to the melancholic as they allow renewed appreciation of all that is beautiful with the world. Notice too that the natural imagery used before to reflect the human state of misery is also simply beauty concealed with the fresh April spring’s ‘green hill’ and ‘droop-headed flowers’ that will look up again once the Sun is out.
In addition, when the melancholy stems from relationship woes we are told to focus on the ‘soft hand’ and ‘deep, deep upon [our lover’s] peerless eyes’ to remind ourselves that however low we are feelings, we must remember the beauty of the world.
The ‘She’ of the final stanza is a reference to the personification of Melancholy from the title of the poem. ‘She dwells with Beauty’ thus confirms that pain only exists as a reflection of pleasure and vice-versus. The very fact that a flower, rainbow or life is temporary makes us appreciate its beauty all the more. All these things ‘must die’, but this makes us appreciate and enjoy them all the more – rainbows wouldn’t be special or comment worthy if they were always clogging up the sky would they.
Keats makes point repeatedly by personifying Joy as ‘ever… Bidding adieu’ (thus saying goodbye) and Pleasure as ‘turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips’ suggests that with time our enjoyment of things turns sour and thus pleasure fades. If he wasn’t clear enough he presents Delight and Melancholy as sharing a temple as we cannot experience true delight without knowing misery and melancholy is a reflection of lost delight.
After reading the third stanza, if we return to the imagery and symbolism of the first we will see that Keats is really being rather clever. Those associations with death can also be linked with a concept of rebirth that reflect the cyclical nature of life and human experience, between pleasure and pain; delight and melancholy. The beetle is associated with Egyptian tombs and their belief in rebirth and an after life; rosaries and the Catholic faith have a strong association with rebirth and resurrection; and Prosperine, although condemned to the underworld initially, eventually spends 6 months there and 6 months in the world and is associated with the change between summer and winter. Thus even here Keats was trying to suggest the temporary nature of melancholia and wanting us to embrace it as a path to rebirth and renewed realisation of what is beautiful in the world.
This poem is written in a regular structure with three ten-line stanzas each using fairly consistent iambic pentameter. This reflects the surety of Keats tone as he presents this advice based on his experience.
You may notice that the rhyme scheme shifts ever so slightly in the final stanza. This change relates to the shift from advice to explanation.
To me, this poem is read with an intense passion and certainty in the beauty of existence. Melancholy is never condemned or criticised, but instead is revered as a crucial and necessary element that allows us to appreciate the beauty or brilliance of our human experience and existence.
As you may have guessed, this poem was actually a song written by Lewis and it is more commonly referred to by the title ‘On seeing dead bodies off the Cape’. This might seem like a rather morbid title for a song, but it was a reflection upon one of Lewis’ war time experiences (which I will yammer on about in the context section below).
The poem is presented from the perspective of a distant lover awaiting the return of their other half who is unfortunately bobbing up and down lifelessly in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Her love and hope for his return are explored through comparison with a failed pregnancy with all the promise and hope extinguished and replaced with despair and emptiness.
tempest – a powerful, violent storm;
self-effacement – being humble and staying out of the limelight.
The first month of his absence
I was numb and sick
And where he’d left his promise
Life did not turn or kick.
The seed, the seed of love was sick
The second month my eyes were sunk
In the darkness of despair,
And my bed was like a grave
And his ghost was lying there.
And my heart was sick with care.
The third month of his going
I thought I heard him say
‘Our course deflected slightly
On the thirty-second day – ’
The tempest blew his words away.
And he was lost among the waves,
His ship rolled helpless in the sea,
The fourth month of his voyage
He shouted grievously
‘Beloved, do not think of me.’
The flying fish like kingfishers
Skim the sea’s bewildered crests,
The whales blow steaming fountains,
The seagulls have no nests
Where my lover sways and rests.
We never thought to buy and sell
This life that blooms or withers in the leaf,
And I’ll not stir, so he sleeps well,
Though cell by cell the coral reef
Builds an eternity of grief.
But oh! the drag and dullness of my Self;
The turning seasons wither in my head;
All this slowness, all this hardness,
The nearness that is waiting in my bed,
The gradual self-effacement of the dead.
Alun Lewis (1915-44)
Lewis had a relatively modest background as one of four children of two teachers working in the south of Wales and, after failing to meet the grade as a journalist, spent his pre-war career working as a supply teacher.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Lewis initially joined an Engineering division as he was a pacifist. However, he seems to have changed his mind and signed up for the front line with the infantry. This experience was to inspire his first published work and he would go on to be recognised as one of the most significant war poets (although I would say he is significantly less well-known than a fair few others).
Although I am sure he was overjoyed that his writing had found an audience, his reflections on his experiences of war are overwhelming gloomy and desolate. In 1944, while fighting in Burma (modern-day Myanmar in South East Asia) he had clearly had enough and put a bullet through his brain (although the army reported this as an accident, it seems highly unlikely).
Our poem was written in 1943 as Lewis sailed with his infantry company to India before their deployment to Burma. As they headed around the Cape of Good Hope (in South Africa) and crossed from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian their ship was diverted to help rescue survivors of a submarine attack in the area. Here Lewis was confronted with lifeless bodies floating in the water.
He reflects upon this from the perspective of his wife and as if he were one of those bodies. Apparently when he left his wife they had both hoped she would be pregnant and thus the poetic voice seem to be Lewis’ projection of how his wife would respond to this tragedy.
This is a deeply melancholic reflection on the impact of war from the perspective of the family and our loved ones. We explore the soul struggling with hope, disbelief and then despair. This is atypically in many senses for a war poem because we do not get a graphic or brutal image of warfare, but instead we are presented with the ignominy of this type of death only through the eyes of the waning hope of his lover.
We have established that we are following the perspective of a distant lover awaiting the return of her other half. The first four stanzas each reflect her changing emotions as his absence goes on from one month to four.
In the opening stanza, the woman is clearly suffering from morning sickness and the early stages of pregnancy. Don’t think about this as a literal pregnancy, but rather Lewis is using it as a method of exploring their love. Thus this sickness also reflects her worry about his well-being.
In the second stanza, the sickness gives way to despair as the baby/their love is now referred to as a ghost suggesting she has given up hope of his return. However, hope is a nasty bastard and he rears his head again in the third as her mind teases her with tenuously plausible reasons her lover may have been delayed either from returning or being able to send her a message.
Again she squashes this hope in the fourth and fifth stanzas and contemplates his fate in the midst of the ocean.
This gives way to her reflecting on their relationship and what it has come to in the end, in the sixth stanza. The opening line had me stumped for a while, but seems to demonstrate that they always had an idea of love as something permanent and not something that would come and go. She paints her heartbreak as leading her to a stillness akin to death, while his death in this silent, empty and peaceful ocean is seen as a kind of eternal sleep.
However, this almost romantic view of his death and therefore peaceful state of rest, is shattered by the sense of passionate anger that concludes the poem. His death is a torment to her as life feels empty and has no meaning, but goes on and on while her memories of their love fade and are less easy for her to grasp.
Language and techniques
This is relatively long and there is a lot going on throughout, so forgive me if I miss some things out.
The first element of the poem I would be keen to dissect in any essay is this dual meaning of the failed pregnancy in the opening stanzas. Lewis refers to the ‘seed of love [being] sick’, which can be interpreted both as their seed growing inside of her or also can be seen as the vestiges of their feelings towards each other. From a contextual point of view, Lewis was only recently married and thus we could see their love being at this early stage and there being an expectation that it would grow and mature, as a baby in the womb, through their life together.
As ‘life did not turn or kick’ we can see that all is really not well. A baby wouldn’t be doing this at the early stages of pregnancy, but clearly there is a sense of dread that she is going to miscarry. Metaphorically this also connects with her failing sense of hope for their love as it is going to be cut short before it realises its full potential. The baby is also described as ‘his promise’, which suggests that his love was a binding commitment not to be broken.
Lewis demonstrates the intensity of love through this comparison and the physical sickness of pregnancy seen in the poetic voice being ‘sick and numb’ are associated with the impact of lovesickness and therefore their love is elevated by actually being able to hurt her physically as well as emotionally.
After Lewis has created this sense of impending doom and tragedy in the first, we are dragged down into grief in the second stanza. Again we have the physical signs of a failed pregnancy with ‘sunk’ eyes suggesting a prior flood of tears and her ‘bed was like a grave’ as her weakness from the ordeal is accompanied by the foetus either remaining lifeless her womb or her baby bump still showing despite miscarrying.
These ideas are also used by Lewis to show the death of her hope. Her tears and inability to stir from bed are manifestations of her ‘darkness of despair’ as she accepts that her love will never return. Associating her despair with darkness presents further connotations of fear, loneliness and dread to accompany her sense of loss. Her misery is compared to the grave in parallel to her acceptance that her lover is now a ‘ghost… lying there’.
One of the particularly powerful ways that Lewis demonstrate the importance of love is through the desperate sense of hope that the poetic voice snatches from her despair. ‘I thought I heard him say’ are slightly misleading words as clearly their physical distances renders her ears completely useless, but instead this line represents her mind’s desperate hope that her worst fears won’t be realised. His supposed words suggest he has merely been delayed and not, as she fears, lost at sea. However, the ‘tempest blew his words away’, which presents an image of her consuming fears that a storm (either literal or perhaps figuratively the storm of war) has taken him and also represents the metaphorical storm of fears that are consuming her as drowning out this brief glimpse of hope. Even these faint hopes give way and are replaced with acceptance of his fate in the fourth stanzas as his voice now confirms he is lost and she needs to move on.
The fifth and sixth stanza replace the traumatic, chaotic and angry vocabulary of the failed pregnancy and the storm with a mini tranquil semantic field of ‘skim’, ‘sway’ and ‘rest’. Our poetic voice represents his death as bringing him peace and even associating it with him ‘sleep[ing] well’ and thus shutting out his fears and pain. This is a loving portrayal of hope that her other half no longer feels the pain she is suffering from his loss. The imagery of his cells becoming part of a coral reef further demonstrate this sense of his death being a release and leading to something almost better and more beautiful than his prior state of existence.
While he ‘sleep[s]’, ‘[she]’ll not stir’. Lewis draws a parallel between the lovers, one in death, the other in life. However, whilst death is described in terms of calm and restful sleep, her continued existence is compared to the physical state of death as there is no suggestion of rest, just stillness and nothingness.
We also have this really painful opening to the sixth stanza to deal with. The line they ‘never thought to buy and sell’ suggests that they were not interested in or expecting to have their life change, but rather anticipated their love, marriage and life going on forever. The subsequent line reveals a reflection that this attitude is somewhat naive given that life ‘blooms and withers in the leaf’ and thus is relatively short-lived. This metaphor compares our existence with flowers in order to demonstrate how fragile and how short-lived their love and happiness was.
The final stanza is really sad. We begin with a mournful exclamation demonstrating her sense of despair and misery, followed by her lamenting the ‘drag and dullness of [her] Self’. This basically means that in her state of woe life seems to have no meaning and she almost feels like she wants it to end.’Self’ is capitalised here as she is personifying her soul as being the cause of this, as if a spiritual side of her were no longer willing to go on living, even if her physical body was perfectly healthy. This idea is repeated in the third line of the stanza, when Lewis describes her life as filled with ‘slowness’ and ‘hardness’ representing her desire for it to end and her inability to be moved by anything respectively.
When the poetic voice speaks of the ‘nearness that is waiting in [her] bed’ she means that her death is with her at all times as her soul has effectively died or given up after losing her love. This feeling is compounded by the ‘self-effacement of the dead’ who, through lack of being there, are seen to find peace quicker and contentment quicker than those losing a loved one.
Comment on the use of the first four stanzas to reflect the changing emotions as the length of absence grows and her love veers from fear to despair to faint hope and finally to acceptance.
I would also mention the use of alliteration and sibilance in the fourth stanza that create a more hushed and peaceful tone as Lewis’ lover imagines a tranquil resting place for her dearly departed.
Your could also discuss the rhyme scheme, which generally follows an ABABB structure, but is kicked about and disrupted as her emotions sway one way and another.
We have established that this changes throughout the poem, particularly at the beginning as her hope ebbs and wanes. Once she accepts her love’s fate Lewis creates a tone of somber, respectful calm, but she cannot find peace and we end with the woe and torment of the final stanza.
Dear loyal readership,
I hope you all had a splendid 2016 and are all set for an even better 2017.
This is certainly the case for me as I have gone from being a world drifter to a family manner with some degree of stability looming in the near future: mortgage, house, responsibility and all that other good stuff that comes along with it.
However, this has come at a cost and I know that my promises and timelines for getting things done on the site are constantly being broken. I can only apologise and assure you that I am doing my best. So much so, I have agreed with my wife that I will be giving one evening a week over to the site. Hopefully with a regular slot, I can get everything done that I think would be useful.
The AS section is almost complete and after that I will be have a good hard look at what to do next. On my list I have down that I should be looking at the A2 selection for Marvell, but I think it might be more prudent to do the iGCSE selection as they are just way, way, way more popular and more heavily read. I will keep you informed, but please feel free to comment to try to influence me.
A quick word on comments: thanks! It is really lovely to get so many comments explaining how the site has helped and made a difference and this is probably one of the main reasons I carry the site on. Please do continue asking questions and contributing ideas as it helps make the site a bit more interactive and insures that thousands of students don’t have to rely on my ideas or have to suffer my many, many mistakes within my analysis.
Lots of love and kisses,
Brontë’s final written words embrace her impending death with the surety of faith and her ascension to heaven and eternal bliss. She positions herself as being without fear as a result and is critical of those who allow their earthly pleasures to make them doubt the paradise that awaits in the after life. Her lines also lavish worship and flattery upon God, presumably as a way of buttering him up before she reaches the pearly gates.
creeds – beliefs;
boundless main – meaning the ocean;
fast – tight or strong grip;
pervades – being present everywhere all at once.
No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.
O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life–that in me has rest,
As I–undying Life–have power in Thee!
Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as wither’d weeds,
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,
To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thine Infinity;
So surely anchor’d on
The steadfast rock of immortality.
With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.
Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou were left alone,
Every existence would exist in Thee.
There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou–Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.
Emily Brontë (1818-1848)
I am a little bit ashamed to tell you that I have never read a single text from any of the Brontë sister. If I mentioned that at work I would almost certainly get lynched. Anyway, analysing this poem renders that no longer true.
The Brontës were the nineteenth centuries literary equivalent of the Kardashians with three sisters all finding literary acclaim for their talents. Emily was the fifth of six children and the fourth daughter in the family and is most famous for her only novel, Wuthering Heights, which is a tragic romance and was published under a male pseudonym as she and her sisters felt that their writing would be judged unfeminine and thus be criticised.
A year after it was published, with Emily only 30 years old, she died of tuberculosis after refusing any medical assistance.
We know very little about her character as she was very shy and lived a secluded life. Although religious faith dominates this poem, the details we do have about her life don’t paint her to be any more or less devout than was common at the time. However, the religious sentiment within the poem could be seen as being amplified by her perilous health.
Her elder sister, Charlotte (the author of Jane Eyre), released this poem as her sister’s final written work and is clearly the reflections of someone who knows the end if approaching.
Another reflection and perspective on death, this time heavily influenced by religious convictions. As Brontë faces her own death, she finds comfort in her faith and therefore sees this as a step not to be feared, but embraced, and blasts those who have let their earthly pleasures make them doubt that eternal bliss awaits after death.
Brontë begins by describing herself as strong and brave in the face of her impending death, which may seem contrary to the popular reaction. Within the stanza she justifies her bravery by painting the world as being the troubled place and heaven as being all shiny, bright and perfect.
She next flatters the big chap in the sky with some platitudes about his power, which reflect her belief that despite her death she will still have life through God and thus in heaven.
From praise to criticism, in the third and fourth stanzas, she gets on her high horse and throws stones at those who do fear death as a result of enjoying their earthly existence too much or losing their faith. In the fifth and sixth, their stupidity is explained as Brontë explains again how God’s power is infinite and all-embracing that our own deaths are insignificant as we will all continue to exist as part of God as he is our creator and our essence.
She ends with a reflection that God’s power makes it impossible for our existence to ever be over or there to be a complete finality to existence as represented by death. It almost sounds scientific when she references the impossibility of an atom simply vanishing from existence, as when we die the atoms that were our make up with be repurposed by the universe. I doubt Brontë meant this, but she wanted to get across that she believes that nothing created by God could simply cease to exist, but that the form must change.
Language and techniques
Brontë conveys her faith that death leads to paradise through a combination of forthright critique of those lacking faith and statements of conviction and certainty making her brave in the face of her demise.
Initially she reflects her own faith through comparison with those that lack it. She is ‘no coward’, ‘no trembler’, but these pejorative words suggests that she views those who do not share her faith with contempt and looks down upon them.
In the third stanza she adds to this by repeating her view that they are ‘vain’, in fact so much so that the second time it becomes ‘unutterabl[e]’, which suggests it disgusts her to think of these people who dare to put their own earthly lives above their faith in God. In addition, she sees them as ‘worthless as wither’d weeds’ (the alliteration in this simile here almost forces you to spit these words out, again conveying her contempt) and therefore lowly, unimportant and something she wants rid of from her garden.
Stemming across the third and fourth stanzas, we have another comparison (metaphor) between those lacking faith and the ‘idlest froth’ of the ‘boundless ocean’, which is a powerful piece of imagery conveying the magnitude of God and his power in the form of an endless ocean and the individual human existence to some barely noticeable, insignificant and unremarkable froth. I will touch on this again, when exploring the way Brontë perceives herself in relation to death.
The effect of using these pejorative expressions and demonstrating extreme contempt towards those lacking faith is two fold. Firstly it acts as a strong message requiring self-reflection by the audience: are we so vain as to worry about our death as if it was of any significance? You may be shouting yes, but if you consider the context of the society this poem was written within, the majority of people would have had strong religious conviction and thus have felt guilty for effectively questioning God by fearing their own demise. Secondly, the severity of her rebukes serve to reflect upon her staunch faith and separate her from any notion of religious doubt at any stage of her existence.
Next, let’s look at the way Brontë uses language to positively demonstrate the certainty of her faith. In the opening stanza she compares faith to a suit of armour ‘arming [her] from fear’, which protects her from the ‘storm-troubled sphere’ that is the world and the doubts that earthly existence can allow to pervade faith. However, what I find particular powerful here is the absolute certainty of the statement as it she ‘see[s] Heaven’s glories shine’ as if she has already seen the truth of what awaits after death.
If we revisit the metaphor relating God’s power to an endless ocean, Brontë positions herself as ‘holding so fast’ the ‘steadfast rock of immortality’ and thus, even within this heavenly infinity, she knows her place in existence and where she fits in God’s grand scheme. Again we have no trace of doubt, her certainty further emphasised by her description of her being ‘so surely anchor’d’ and thus in no danger whatsoever of being swayed by doubt and drifting without direction in this ocean.
Another aspect to explore here is the way the reciprocity between the human soul and God is developed. The opening line connects us with the idea that death is a departure from the body, but continued existence comes in the form of the ‘soul’. This soul is ‘God within my breast’ and thus part of our existence comes directly from the Divine, but also ‘I have power in Thee’ suggests that even when our bodies die we continue to exist within God as our souls represent a part of him.
In the sixth stanza, Brontë creates this powerful image of the end of all life, our planet and solar system ceasing to exist and yet ‘every existence would exist in Thee’ and thus the human soul is positioned as being inseparable from God’s being. This idea culminates in the final stanza dismissing the notion of Death as an end to existence or leading to a nothingness. The capitalisation here shows that Brontë is tackling the popular idea of the grim reaper or Death figure who ferries away our souls. For Brontë this is impossible as our very atoms exist as part of God and thus cannot be ‘render[ed] void’ or ‘destroyed’.
I read a lovely, succinct piece of analysis that might do a better job than me in part and you can read that if you click here.
The first thing to comment on here is the regularity of stanza construction and rhyme. Each of the seven stanzas is organised as a quatrain with an ABAB rhyme scheme and the rhyming lines share syllable count.
Combine this with the majority of the poem being punctuated so that it is read in a calm and steady pace. Brontë only deviates from this on a couple of occasions, using caesura and enjambment, only when moved by praise she is showering on God or contempt she is pouring upon those who do not share her steadfast faith.
This regularity and the pace of the poem reflect the calm manner in which Brontë is facing death. The structure and the pace of the poem convey no sense of panic, fear or distress, but instead demonstrate that she is at peace with herself and awaiting her end with open arms.
If you are very clever and feel you can word it effectively, you might want to comment on the one example of imperfect/half rhyme used in the sixth stanza and explained in the blog posted I referred to at the end of the previous section.
The words ‘gone’ and ‘alone’ have a similar form, but pronunciation renders the rhyme strained at best. This isn’t Brontë screwing up, but is a deliberate attempt to draw attention to her subject matter at this point. The jarring rhyme in fact reflects jarring concepts as she explains in this stanza that man cannot cease to exist or be gone and neither can God be alone as the two are inseparable and exist as part of each other.
Such is Brontë’s conviction and certainty in her faith, this poem is read in a calm and reflective tone with a sense of looking forward to the change that her life ending will bring. There are little spikes of passion, both positive and negative, when referencing her devotion/admiration toward God and contempt towards those who doubt their faith.
This is a cheery poem… or maybe not, where a personified Death explains his virtues and why we shouldn’t live our lives in fear of him. His point is basically that death is an intrical and inescapable part of life, high and low, and that if we spend our lives trying to avoid or stave off death our efforts will mean that we avoid actually living our lives and ultimately death will catch up with all of us anyway.
hoary – a greyish white
cark – an informal way of saying die, which seems to stem from the fact it sounds like the call of death’s winged friend, the crow;
thistle-down – a weedy plant where the seeds can be blown off.
I am the one whose thought
Is as the deed; I have no brother, and
No father; years
Have never seen my power begin. A chain
Doth bind all things to me. In my hand, man,–
Infinite thinker,–vanishes as doth
The worm that he creates, as doth the moth
That it creates, as doth the limb minute
That stirs upon that moth. My being is
Inborn with all things, and
With all things doth expand.
But fear me not; I am
The hoary dust, the shut ear, the profound,
The deep of night,
When Nature’s universal heart doth cease
To beat; communicating nothing; dark
And tongueless, negative of all things. Yet
Fear me not, man; I am the blood that flows
Within thee,–I am change; and it is I
Creates a joy within thee, when thou feel’st
Manhood and new untried superior powers
Rising before thee: I it is can make
Old things give place
To thy free race.
All things are born for me.
His father and his mother,–yet man hates
An easy spirit and a free lives on,
But he who fears the ice doth stumble.Walk
Straight onward peacefully,–I am a friend
Will pass thee graciously: but grudge and weep
And cark,–I’ll be a cold chain around thy neck
Into the grave, each day a link drawn in,
Until thy face shall be upon the turf,
And the hair from thy crown
Be blown like thistle-down.
William Bell Scott (1811-1890)
An artist, a poet and an art teacher, Bell was a contemporary of the Pre-Raphaelites and in particular the Rossettis (who have tonnes of poems analysed on this site) producing his work from the 1830s until his death in 1890.
The limited biographical details I’ve found don’t paint him as one of the wildest poets about, but you might be interested to know that he got married, fell out of love and then began a 30 year affair, but refused to leave his wife.
Anyway, not much that links us to the content of this poem.
Clearly this is focused on death, positioning it in terms of being eternal, inescapable, but at the same time as something that gives us freedom and releases us from the strains of life as the ultimate sleep.
In the eyes of Google this poem is virgin territory as a quick search reveals only one from shaky and uncertain Prezi analysis, which I would largely discount.
This means that this post could become the authority on this poem! An exciting, but a daunting prospect.
Bell doesn’t mess around and tells us exactly what this is about in the title. Death is not only the title, but a personified version (think the grim reaper, but more prosaic) provides the poem’s voice. I will refer to Death as him throughout my analysis, but I am just pandering to my own imagination and really Death is sexless (snigger!).
In the first stanza he describes himself with some lovely, morbid imagery. After establishing his eternal nature, he informs us that basically we’re screwed as he will be visiting every living thing at some point and there is no escaping it. If this message on its own wasn’t enough to make us feel miserable, he rams it home by crushing our human belief that we are somehow special by saying that he will be coming for the worm and moth too – thanks! The stanza ends with a revisiting of the fact he is an inescapable part of life.
This stanza really reminded me of an old clip from a British comedy sketch show that I feel aptly sums up how I felt after reading it:
If we were feeling a bit blue after this, Death moves to calm us and tells us that we needn’t worry about it or fear him. A quick self-description paints him like sleep as a provider of peace, quiet and rest. This is followed by a reminder that he cannot be avoided. However, he finally comes to a reason we shouldn’t fear him, namely that Death brings change and creates joy, which I think associates Death with ageing, but also can be seen as a reflection on the opportunities death creates for those remaining. This joy could also stem from the fact that Death provides a release and freedom from the struggles and toil of life.
Now that Death has made us feel a bit better about our inevitable get together, he begins moaning about the human attitude towards death. He paints two pictures: one is a person just living their life with no thought for the end; the other is constantly worrying about preserving their life and so busy doing this that they are not living life to the full and will inevitable meet their maker regardless of their actions. We should clearly aspire to be the first of these and welcome Death as a friend and inevitable part of our lives.
Language and techniques
Okay, you need to begin with examining this personified Death and what Scott represents him as.
Firstly, he is established as being particularly powerful and an eternal feature of life that existed before the beginning and after the end (if that makes sense). He has ‘no brother, and no father’ suggesting he has no creator and no equal, perhaps further reflecting that there is nothing more powerful that can override or trump his power. The fact that ‘years have never seen my power begin’ further shows that not even time, the universal constant, has any power over Death.
Scott makes him more sinister though in the rest of the opening stanza. We have imagery that compares Death to a jailor with ‘a chain [that] doth bind all things to me’, but he seems to be a particularly nasty one as no matter who his prisoner he ‘vanishes’. This is further established through the diminishment of mankind making us the equal of the ‘worm’ and ‘moth’, which not only demonstrates that all life will meet death, but the choice of insects, often considered lowly beings, really puts humanity in its place. The descriptive aside of man as the ‘infinite thinker’ almost seems to be mocking our own thought of ourselves as being somehow above this shared fate.
The tone and passive aggressive nature of this stanza serves as a way of Scott establishing the harsh inevitability of death and attempts to end any arguments or thought about trying to avoid it, something that is revisited in the final stanza.
At the end of the stanza, the final sentence again reinforces the concept of Death as being beyond all limits of time and experience. He is ‘inborn with all things, and with all things doth expand’, thus the very process of being born and given life ensures our death and expands his reach.
The second stanza presents a completely different perspective. Beginning with the soothing, ‘But fear me not’ it attempts to move us from this image of death as a vicious jailor and instead positioning him as being a force of change and a relief from the stresses and strains of life. Death is now positioned as the ultimate sleep as ‘The hoary dust, the shut ear, the profound, The deep of night’ creates imagery of a pitch black night, still and silent when there is ‘nothing’. Although on the face of it this could seem like another depressing aspect of death, we are again reassured with the repetition of ‘Fear me not’.
This nothing is presented as bringing ‘change’ and ‘joy’. I think this can possibly be interpreted in two ways: firstly, as Death allowing us to begin a new journey as we ascend to heaven where we have ‘new untried superpowers’, which could represent our new eternal existence and happiness; secondly, as ending all our worries and worldly strains as ‘Old things give place To thy free race’ – this may mean that old fears/thoughts/worries are left behind and death provides us freedom from our responsibilities.
I couldn’t really fit this in above, but you may also want to comment on the metaphoric expression that ‘I am the blood that flows Within thee.’ This is a lovely way of expressing that Death is not our enemy, but simply a part of our life that makes life what it is. This is again meant to be reassuring as he is not something to be avoided, but a part of who we are – how can you fear yourself? You can’t… unless you have a gambling problem… or are a violent drunk… or… well, anyway, you get my point!
The opening line of the final stanza communicates the same thing, roughly. If everything is ‘born for me’, we can interpret Death as being something like a watchful father. Alternatively, you could see this as just ramming home the message that we are all destined to die from the moment we are born. However, I think the first of these interpretations is more accurate as it is used as a way to demonstrate that ‘man hates [him] foolishly.’ This line demonstrates Death’s and Scott’s frustration with the attitude of fearing death.
This idea is further expounded upon as the stanza compares the lives of: someone who lives their life as ‘an easy spirit’ without contemplating and worrying about when their existence will come to an end: and someone who fears Death. The latter is described through a metaphor comparing the attitude to walking on ice where the fear causes one to be uncertain and thus ‘stumble’. I am sure Scott didn’t get this idea from watching Disney’s Bambi, but the clip will give you a clear impression of Scott’s comparison:
For those who do not fear Death they have him as a ‘friend [who] Will pass thee graciously’ and not bother them until it is their time. Whereas, those who worry about it with their onomatopoeic ‘grudge and weep and cark’ will be consumed by their fears and their lives with be less fulfilled as a result. Scott uses this lovely image of the ‘cold chain around thy neck’ to represent fear dragging us down until eventually we succumb and are taken to our grave. Those without fear are not dragged to their grave, but are led their by their friend Death when it is their time.
Notice how this analogy between fear and chains is really vivid and brutal (with the face squashed to the ground and the image of hair falling out like ‘thistle-down’ – image below). Oddly it seems as if Death is trying to scare and threaten us out of our fear of him… threatening and shouting at students never seems to make them warm up to me, but who am I to question Death’s methods?
There isn’t a huge amount to comment on here.
I think I would mention the lack of regularity throughout. The stanzas appear at first glance to be the same, but all have a different number of lines (11,13,12) and there is occasional rhyme, but only in the last two lines of each stanza is this consistent.
This lack of regularity could reflect the fact that Death is not predictable and does not come at a particular age or stage of existence. However, those final lines’ consistency show that although the when is uncertain, Death itself is a certainty and unavoidable.
Although we have some pretty grim and miserable ideas within this poem, I think it is meant to be a poem that inspires us to live our lives without fear. We go from factual, to passionate and uplifting, to threatening in the final stanza.
This poem gives us a very positive take on death. Stevenson welcomes death as a return to home and stability. He paints it as a serene scene of rest and one that will be welcomed after his life’s journey has been done. He writes his own epithet in the second stanza where death is portrayed as coming home as if to rest from the rigours of life.
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
‘Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.’
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)
For once we are dealing with a writer who was actually a smash hit during his lifetime. You’ve almost certainly heard of him or his books, of which Treasure Island and Kidnapped are probably the best known (Kidnapped is also one of my favourite novels).
A Scot born into a family of lighthouse designers (you don’t hear that much anymore!), he looked set to follow this path until he began skipping the lectures of his Engineering university course. His holidays were devoted to travelling to inspect family engineering works, but it was the travel itself that he found more inspiring and soon after he embarked upon a literary career. He also moved away from his roots by distancing himself from religion and declaring himself an atheist.
Although he was a success almost immediately, his life was made difficult by his poor health. He bobbed about the world in the search of somewhere his health could be improved, but in vain. Eventually he ended up in Samoa (of all places!) and died of a cerebral haemorrhage.
This poem was written four years before his death and the epithet on his gravestone in Samoa carries the final three lines of this poem.
This poem presents death as a natural part of life and something not to be feared as it represents a rest at the end of a life’s journey. It is somewhat unusual in that it is a concept of death without any religious association and an acceptance of the nothingness of atheist belief as a natural part of existence.
What a beautiful sentiment in this poem! Stevenson shows he is ready for the end and asks simply for a grave in nature, under the starry sky. Although he is ready for death, he tells us that he has enjoyed life, but feels it is time to enjoy the next step. He is not struggling against death, but instead is ready for it.
In the second stanza, he writes his own epithet and gives his views on life. In it, he positions death as a return home and an end of the trials of life as depicted by a life at sea and that of the hunter.
Language and techniques
‘Requiem’ is a religious mass that is offered up to the dead. Although Stevenson was an atheist, he offers this poem as his thoughts and ideas about death.
We begin with a simple, pastoral image of his desired grave having only one basic requirements, namely to be ‘Under the wide and starry sky’. This simple natural image paints a serene and calm image, supported by the gentle alliteration of the ‘s’ at the end of the line, which reflects Stevenson idea of death as a type of rest at the end of our lives.
This idea of death as a positive and desirable commodity is further established by Stevenson’s readiness. He says ‘let me lie’ and says he will be ‘laid… down with a will’ and thus he is welcoming the end and is ready to embrace it.
Lest we think that he has had a wretched life and just wants it over, he repeats the idea of being ‘glad to live’ and ‘gladly die’. This demonstrates that death is simply being treated as the nature next stage of his existence and not one to be welcomed before time or to be feared or avoided.
In the second stanza, this is further reinforced by his use of the verb ‘longed’, which shows that Stevenson’s is really ready for this next stage and the release from his life’s journey.
His two metaphors for what the grave represents show us that he feels that death will be a final soothing rest. He positions death as a ‘sailor… home from sea’, which compares it to the rest from the storms and tossing of the sea that dominate a sailor’s existence. While ‘the hunter home from the hill’ suggests that it represents the end of the toil, tracking and struggle. Obviously, Stevenson was neither a sailor nor a hunter, so these metaphors represents the various strains of life and thus he feels ready to die as he is a little weary of life’s toil and simply wants to rest.
The repetition of the word ‘home’ continually reinforces this notion that death is a gentle release that we should all welcome as a natural part of our lives, at the end of our journeys.
Loads to say here.
First of all notice that each word in the poem is simple (one or two syllables at most) and the rhyme follows a simple, repetitive and regular AAAB rhythm. Stevenson is one of the most respected wordsmiths in literature and this simplicity is used to convey the sense of calm and rest he feels death represents. The words and rhyme almost lull us to rest.
We also have a crazy amount of alliteration going on. This serves the same effect with the soft ‘l’s of ‘let me lie’, ‘s’s of ‘starry sky’ and ‘h’s of ‘hunter home from the hill’.
Serene and calm, embracing death as a natural end of the struggles of life.
In this sonnet Donne examines the transition from life to death with a heavily religious focus. Comparing life to a play, a race and a pilgrimage, he acknowledges the inevitability of death, but believes that his body will be consumed by the earth and with it his sins, while his soul will return to its heavenly origins.
impute – attribute something to someone (normally with negative connotations).
This is my play’s last scene; here heavens appoint
My pilgrimage’s last mile; and my race,
Idly, yet quickly run, hath this last pace,
My span’s last inch, my minute’s latest point;
And gluttonous death will instantly unjoint
My body and my soul, and I shall sleep a space;
But my’ever-waking part shall see that face
Whose fear already shakes my every joint.
Then, as my soul to’heaven, her first seat, takes flight,
And earth-born body in the earth shall dwell,
So fall my sins, that all may have their right,
To where they’are bred, and would press me, to hell.
Impute me righteous, thus purg’d of evil,
For thus I leave the world, the flesh, the devil.
John Donne (1572-1631)
Donne was a poet,during the reign of Elizabeth I, and, in later life and during the reign of James I, a priest. His religious beliefs play a consistently important role in his work and this is undoubtedly related to the fact that he was born into the Catholic faith that was at the time illegal and underground in England – many of his family died as martyrs for their faith.
Although Donne began his life as a staunch Catholic and deprived himself of opportunity and advancement as a result, he would later convert to Anglicanism and became a cleric for the Church.
He has a pretty interesting personal life, with his sneaky marriage getting him arrested and thrown in prison, banging out 12 children and serving as an MP. It was only after Elizabeth I’s death that he started to make a name for himself as a poet. He made a name for himself as a harsh critic of the corruption of society and the Church in his poetry.
This sonnet comes from a series called The Holy Sonnets and is thought to have been written between 1607-9. These were a series of 19 sonnets where Donne explores his religious struggles, fears and doubts. Our poem is generally seen as being the sixth in the sequence.
It is believed that they were all written when Donne was having a hard time of things in his personal life whilst also converting from Catholicism to Anglicanism. Thus this may influence the fact he sounds a bit fed up with life on Earth.
It is important to note that this is a type of meditation on what death would bring rather than being Donne facing up to a soon impending end of his life, as he would live another 20 years. However, in other work he seems to have had a bit of an obsession with the idea that our judgement day could come at any time, so maybe it was in the back of his mind.
The poem revolves around death from a religious perspective. There is a confidence that as his life has been lived as a form of pilgrimage that whatever sin he has accumulated will be left behind as the sins of the flesh, while his soul will re-ascend to heaven, pure once more.
The first four lines are the same idea explored through four simple metaphors – namely that his time on Earth was coming to an end.
Once he has finished repeating himself, he describes a greedy death beginning to consume his flesh instantaneously, but causing a split between flesh and soul. While death chows down on the flesh, his eternal soul heads up to see the face of the big guy in the clouds and face a scary (only in the sense that God is so immense that we tremble in his presence) judgement day.
Donne describes the split in a bit more detail with flesh going back to the Earth and with it all the sin he has accumulated. His soul, freed now from sin, ascends to heaven.
In the final couplet he relates how this is possible. He is forgiven his sins and attributed righteousness as this was Christ’s gift to man – dying for our sins. He thus sheds his sin, which is clearly associated with the biblical notion of only existing and developing as a result of man being in the world, made of flesh and subject to the temptations of the devil.
Language and techniques
The opening line and metaphorical comparison between life and a play is important because it immediately connects us with the idea of judgement. A play is performed to an audience and therefore so is life – in the latter case the audience is rather more important and divine. The finality of death is thus compared to the audience’s reaction upon the completion of a play, whether they whoop and cheer or throw rotten veg.
Donne choses to use a number of additional metaphors to dramatically emphasise the finality of death and it being the end of a journey. The end of the journey is not seen as a random event, but is link to the concept of religiously controlled fate as the ‘heavens appoint [his] last mile’, suggesting a predetermination behind when our judgement will come. This fact links to Donne’s notions that our judgement can come at any stage and we should be ready for it.
Another notable thing to explore here is the description of his life as ‘my pilgrimage’. A pilgrimage is a religious journey where we devote time and efforts to faith. Thus he frames the whole of his life in these terms and therefore he is suggesting he has led his life in this way.
Moving onto the second quatrain, we have this monstrous vision of a personified death that is eagerly awaiting our deaths. ‘Gluttonous death’ connects the demise of our flesh with one of the seven deadly sins, which are ravenously consumed.
However, Donne’a death ‘instantly unjoint[s]’ the flesh from the soul or spirit. While our flesh will ‘sleep a space’ or in other words remain forever more in one spot (our grave), the soul will go on.
Our souls are presented as ‘ever-waking part[s]’ implying that they have and will exist for all eternity. After the judgement from an immense – 9 parts glorious, 1 part intimidating – God leaves his soul ‘shak[ing its] every joint’, which highlights that even those living righteous lives (as Donne establishes he has through his pilgrimage stick) need to worry about divine judgement and perhaps serves as a severe warning for the less than morally squeaky clean.
After getting the nod from the big cheese, the soul ascends to heaven. This is presented as returning to its ‘first seat’ suggesting that our souls originate from heaven and from God.
In contrast Donne’s flesh is presented as an ‘earth-born body’ and therefore it will remain there forever. Along with it, ‘So falls my sins’ who return to where ‘they’are bred’, namely earth again. This connects with the concept of all sin being sins of the flesh, created by the temptations available for mankind on the world, after their fall from the divine safety of the Garden of Eden, and as a result of the meddling of the devil.
In the final line this is made clear. The soul is freed from the triple threat sin creators ‘the world, the flesh, the devil’ and returns to the purity of its divine roots.
You should also deal with the second to last line as it is intriguingly poised. ‘Impute’ normally means to give negative attributions to something, but here we are imputing him ‘righteous’, which doesn’t seem like a terribly bad thing. Indeed it isn’t; this line is referring the sacrifice of Christ, who supposedly died for all human sin and thus through his sacrifice enabled us to be forgiven our earthly sins when it comes to our judgement day. His sacrifice thus enabled Donne (in his meditation) to be ‘purg’d of evil’.
For more good stuff, check out the excellent Cross-Ref analysis.
This sonnet follows a Petrarchan structure with an double ABBA rhyme scheme and two quatrains being followed by a sestet.
The sestet is used to demonstrate the divinity of our souls and the importance of Christ’s sacrifice in helping us get a ticket back to our heavenly origins.
You could comment on the use of enjambment in the opening quatrain, which slows the poem down to a contemplative state that reflects the fact that the end of our lives/a play becomes the time for final judgement and review of its worth.
There is a confidence in this poem that can only be expressed as immovable faith in the writer’s own morality and the certainty of his ascension. However, this confidence also has a sharper edge of judgement with some implied criticism of earthly society and warning for those who are maybe not quite so focused on leading their own lives as pilgrimages.
Wow! My first Blake poem and we’re smacked bang in the face with some scintillatingly beautiful imagery.
He paints the night sky with an image of Venus’ constant silver glow gently coaxing the world to bed and bringing stillness and silence to the world. Its light is positioned as being protective and keeping out the evils of the world, but only for so long. The poem ends with a plea for Venus to stay and protect his flock from the dangers of the night.
As always, the poem isn’t that simple and where Blake positions Venus, we can also see an analogy relating to mankind’s relationship with God.
dusk – the moment before total darkness of night has descended;
dun – dull, grey/brown colour.
Thou fair-hair’d angel of the evening,
Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light
Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown
Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!
Smile on our loves, and while thou drawest the
Blue curtains of the sky, scatter thy silver dew
On every flower that shuts its sweet eyes
In timely sleep. Let thy west wind sleep on
The lake; speak silence with thy glimmering eyes,
And wash the dusk with silver. Soon, full soon,
Dost thou withdraw; then the wolf rages wide,
And then the lion glares through the dun forest:
The fleeces of our flock are cover’d with
Thy sacred dew: protect them with thin influence!
William Blake (1757-1827)
Another contender for the title of GOAT (at least in British eyes), Blake actually enjoyed very little renown during his life and only posthumously became recognised as one of the seminal names in poetry.
Although he had an interesting life, I simply haven’t got time to give you any sort of overview. Instead you will have to be content with information relating specifically to this poem.
Blake was deeply religious, but was quite passionately anti-organised religion. Throughout his life he claimed to have had religious visions and considered religion to be something of a personal experience rather than something to be dictated by a priest. In fact, he castigated organised religion for its constant desire to ‘lays his curse on the fairest joys’ or, in other words, to disapprove of all the enjoyable elements of life – a suggestion that some have related to his more relaxed attitudes towards love, marriage and sexuality.
In this poem he not only creates a pastoral scene of splendid natural beauty, which he ties to sexuality. He also appeals directly to the Big Man Upstairs to keep him on the straight and narrow.
This is another poem that has a clear dual theme of the restorative power and beauty of sleep, while at the same time acknowledging a religious power that is represented through the protective power of the light in the dark.
This poem is a sonnet of appreciation and love directed towards the brightest star in the night sky. This star is in fact a planet and not a star. Although it looks like a star, you can usually tell it is not because it is brighter than all the rest and has a constant light rather than the twinkle twinkling of actual stars off in the far reaches of the cosmos.
The opening line immediately connects this star with the idea of divinity and heaven by personifying it as an angel. Blake proceeds to create devastatingly beautiful imagery of this star emerging as the sun dips down below the mountains, as Venus becomes visible as the sun sets. This beauty is seen as a form of loving embrace that soothes us or watches over us as we retreat to our beds.
We also have a sexual connection as Venus looks out ‘on our loves’ and as we are rustling under the sheets, closing out the day and creates a romantically beautiful and sensuously calm scene for our slumber/rustling. This consists of a sprinkling of silver light and the star bringing the wind to a gentle, lightly rippling rest upon the water/world.
As the poem develops Blake fears the withdrawl of Venus’ light as the planet rotates and we (in the Westerner hemisphere) can no longer see it. With the loss of this protective light, the wolf and the lion begin to range and hunt, which represents spiritual dangers and the temptations that many lead us to stray from our religious morality.
However, Blake feels like the lingering silver dew left by Venus is enough to protect those bathed in it. This clearly links to spirituality and the light cast upon the darkness can be seen as the strength to resist temptation provided by religious faith and morality.
Language and techniques
You may have notice that this poem is a sonnet and thus its title ‘To the Evening Star’ is a loving dedication to something Blake admires. In this case it is not the star (or planet), but the divine role he ascribes to it that is the subject of his affection.
While the use of ‘evening star’ to represent Venus is not as familiar an expression nowadays as it was in Blake’s day, the term is still used to represent Venus’ status as the first visible star. It is also known as the wandering star as it seems to move more quickly across the sky than the distant real stars and disappears more quickly from sight as the Earth rotates us away from it.
The star/planet is personified in the opening line as a ‘fair hair’d angel’, which immediately connects it with purity and beauty, so much so that this object is associated with royalty with a ‘radiant crown’ and deified as an angelic presence. Blake’s develops this celestial essence assigned to Venus by describing it in terms that make it seem to watch over and protect the human race.
The first of these roles is to cast light on the Earth when the Sun disappears. Blake uses a vivid image of Venus appearing just as the ‘sun rests on the mountains’, with its light protecting the Earth from complete darkness with a smooth transition from daylight to its ‘bright torch of love’. As a torch clearly this light is weaker than the Sun, but a torch helps us find our way in the darkness. Here Blake creates a duality of meaning as this is both literal light being cast on the world and also him referencing faith and religious belief as being lights guiding us away from the dangers of the dark or temptation.
Perhaps you could also connect this to sexual shenanigans. It is a light ‘of love’ and ‘smiles upon our evening bed’ and ‘our loves’. Thus the light guides us to bed and watches over our loving. Perverse stars/planets, that is why I would always suggest drawing your curtains! This notion is further supported by the fact that Venus was also the Roman Goddess of Love and Beauty.
As the sonnet continues it actually becomes clear that the Evening Star protects us perversity as it soothes us to bed as it draws the ‘blue curtain’ closed and transitions us to night. As it does this it scatters a ‘silver dew’ upon the Earth on all things that find ‘timely sleep’ and thus avoid the darkness and thus temptation. Literally this dew is the silvery light cast upon the Earth by the light of the stars, which is then given a physical residue with the dew or wetness we find upon the grass upon a spring morning.
As the star closes the curtains on the day and casts protective dew across the Earth, so to does it bring the world to peace. By its influence even the ‘west wind sleep[s] on the lake’, leaving an image of a gently ‘glimmering’ reflecting off the calmed waters of the lake. All these elements not only combines to form a vivid and majestic piece of natural imagery, but also reflect a calm and serene mood and atmosphere to the scene.
Why is this protection needed? Blake symbolises the dangers of temptation or straying from the path of the faithful with the ferocity of the animal kingdom. In the dark the ‘wolf rages’ and the ‘lion glares’ through the foliage whilst stalking its prey. Both these metaphors represent the dangers that lurk, hidden in the darkness. The use of the word ‘rages’ suggest these dangers are associated with hatred, anger and bitterness. The animals used to represent this danger are those we would most associate with ruthlessness, stealth and ferocity and thus we should reflect that Blake wants us to recognise the magnitude of the dangers for those straying from the path of the faithful.
If we connect these ideas with sexuality we can see that the physical act of sex is a primal and animalistic, which opens us up to the risk of giving into these savage passion, just as animals. I’ve not explained this well, but have a look here for a better explanation. This interpretation does stray from my idea of Venus being protective and sees it as an alternate to God in that it supports our more sensual side.
However, never fear as Venus will protect us from these urges!
The concept of this physical dew cast down protectives by the Evening Star is revisited in the final two lines. Now it is referred to as ‘sacred dew’ and thus innately connected with a divine role, specifically to ‘protect them with thin influence’ from the temptations and dangers of the dark. The ‘them’ in this case have earlier been referred to as ‘our flock’, terminology that is intimately connected with Christian faith and the belief that God is our shepherd and faith protects us from evil.
This is a very unusual sonnet as it does not follow the rhyming conventions of either Petrarchan or Shakespearean sonnets and instead has no rhyme scheme at all.
The fact it is a sonnet demonstrates the love or appreciation that Blake directs towards faith, but the lack of rhyme could be seen in two ways. I interpreted it as a deliberate attempt by Blake to focus us on the simple natural beauty of this dusk time scene, stripping back the poem to allow the imagery to dominate. However, you could also see this as being an artistic challenge to the rules, as Blake was a bit of an individual.
Even without a rhyme scheme as such, we do see a number of internal rhymes within lines (bright – light; smile – whie; sky – thy), which I see as Blake indicating that even though this is a rustic, simple pastoral image, its sheer beauty inspires rhyme and order.
You should also make some mention of the consistent use of consonance alliteration throughout the poem. Throughout line 6-10 notice how much ‘s’ sounds we are given. The effect is much like the shushing of the wind being described as the poem soothes us towards silence and rest.
Throughout we have an air of worship and awe towards this celestial figure. At times Blake runs away with his enthusiasm for the beauty of the imagery, or of the act of physical love, but at the end of the poem he is very much back to recognising the vulnerability of man and thus is supplicant towards the heavens and their protective powers.